Depends on which Southern generation you ask.
Dinner and supper. Two simple words often used interchangeably to describe the general setting of the last meal of the day.
But, the two terms couldn’t be more different, both in origin and meaning. Just as important, though, is the fact that whichever word takes precedence in your food lexicon may explain more about which side of the generational fence you straddle.
First, let’s define both terms. Merriam-Webster establishes dinner as "the principal meal of the day." Supper, on the other hand, has three definitions:
- The evening meal when dinner is taken at mid-day.
- A light meal served late in the evening.
- An evening social especially for raising funds. (think: a church supper or social supper).
In other words, what we refer to as the lunch hour today was actually reserved for dinner. Whereas supper, traditionally speaking, was thought of as a light meal following dinner.
If you grew up in the South post-colonial era, however, chances are your association with the words have more to do with colloquial etymology, rather than the time of day you sat down to eat. For example, you probably heard, "supper’s ready," just before Mama or Grandma placed a table-full of delicious dishes before you. Because back then, families would sit down together to enjoy supper—not dinner—whether it was at noon or 6 o'clock in the evening. Today, particularly among the younger generation, not so much. Now you’re more likely to hear people ask, "what’s for dinner?"
Therein lies the great generational divide.
Beyond regional and age differences, though, we can also trace the derivation of both words back to the American colonial period. Between 1600 and 1776, the South relied heavily on agriculture and farming. As such, many farmers were too busy to eat three meals a day, and most often just ate breakfast and dinner, with the latter serving as the biggest feast of the day. The English Language & Usage Stack Exchange, a forum for linguistic enthusiasts, suggests that farmers "ate larger meals at noontime to give them the strength to keep working through the afternoon." If they were still hungry once they returned home from working on the farm all day, they would eat a light supper in the form of soup.
This makes perfect sense when you think of the Merriam definition of supper and its root word. Supper stems from the word "sup," and it’s also related to the German word for soup ("suppe"). According to the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange, families would put on a pot of soup to simmer throughout the day and eat it later in the evening, which was also known as "supping" the hot soup.
Food historian Helen Zoe Veit seemed to echo that same sentiment in an interview with NPR, where she discussed how many meals Americans actually consumed in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
According to Zoe Veit, this trend started to change when "more Americans were working outside of the home and farm, so they couldn't readily return home to cook and eat in the middle of the day." This could explain why, in recent times, the word dinner for young working professionals is referred to as the last meal of the day, and lunch is, well, the new version of supper—only eaten earlier in the day.
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So we’d like to know which term you frequently heard in your household growing up, and which one you prefer to call the final meal of the day? Just in case you were wondering, we're still pretty big on the word supper here at SL.